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Can a flailing, often failing, young Muslim man present the most appealing portrayal of “religion” on recent television? A millennial from an immigrant family in northern Jersey illumines the potholed path to meaningful religion? Ramy, a comedy series on Hulu, suggests the answer is “Yes!”

Ramy stars Ramy Youssef, himself the son of Egyptian immigrants, a stand-up comedian, and Golden Globe winner. The critics love it. It’s among many recent shows with first-generation Americans navigating between their traditional, non-Christian religious backgrounds and the ways and wiles of young adulthood. But I’m not really up to speed on hip shows. My kids told me to watch Ramy.

Ramy wants to be a devout Muslim — sincerely and intently. But much of the time his best intentions fail. He is weak. He makes poor decisions. He finds no support from his fellow believers.

Still Ramy is a man after our own hearts. He is likable and funny, relaxed and befuddled. This is what makes his religious quest so understandable and admirable. We relate to his true religious yearnings, as well as everything that trips him up.

Much of the media attention around Ramy focuses on the way the show humanizes Muslims and Arabs. True enough. But the show’s focus is less on the misunderstandings or hostility Muslims face. Instead, it is more about the quest to be a faithful Muslim millennial in modern America. How to observe Ramadan and be a sexually-active single man? How to live with both the internet and the Quran? What is archaic superstition and what is enduring wisdom? What is simply of his culture, and what is genuine religion that transcends cultures and nationality? These are questions faced not only by young Muslims, but by religious persons of all varieties.

Identifying with, rooting for, and liking a young Muslim TV character who has some serious pecadillos, many of a sexual nature? It seems unlikely, yet it works.

Maybe it is simply the force of Yousef’s character and abilities. There’s also a good cast, interesting characters, fresh writing. Or I wondered is it because Islam is a “minority religion” in the US that we so sympathetically accept Ramy’s fragile and failing faith? Certainly, Islam rarely gets the benefit of the doubt in popular culture, but is Ramy working the “exotic” angle? I don’t think so.

Are Christian TV characters boxed in by our cultural dominance? Maybe the abundance of negative portrayals of Christians in pop culture is simply because of the abundance of Christians. For centuries there have been zillions of critics and comedians who have lampooned Christians effectively and hilariously.

But have we lampooned ourselves? And if not, why not? Are Christians less willing to own our flaws and laugh at ourselves? Ramy can hold together faith and failure in a way that is believable, humorous, and endearing. If Ramy were a Christian character would he be judged a phony? Would Christians accept such an errant seeker as one of their own flock?

The show also subtly displays how American consumerist-therapeutic religion is gradually changing American Islam. After seeing Ramy and his Muslim colleagues recite their prayers during Ramadan, a non-Muslim friend asks Ramy to pray for his cancer-stricken mother. He insists that Ramy chant right then and there, even including his mother’s name in the prayers. Ramy’s morning prayers have little in common with the impromptu, personalized prayer the friend expects. But unable to convey that to a modern American, Ramy finally chants a bit of nonsense to placate the friend.

Ramy also changes mosques. He leaves impersonal and stuffy traditionalism (cue the cliched, gruff, and hurried minister imam) for the mystical, experiential beauty of a Sufi Center, complete with a urbane, smooth-spoken sheikh. Obviously, “church-hopping” or shopping is not confined to those whose religion includes churches.

For me, it was the episodes when Ramy seemed to be a more dutiful and diligent Muslim that were least convincing. Whiffs of cloying religion, shiny success, and two-dimensional characters — the way Christians too often portray Christianity — were in the air. It seems blessedness is hard to portray. I feared the series was about to jump the shark. Instead it’s been renewed for another season.

In the struggle between tradition and the melting pot, the melting pot usually wins — both on TV and in real life. And that’s not always a bad thing. Religions, cultural identities, traditions can do with some trimming. It can bring renewal. All that might be a little more grandiose than what Ramy aims to do. But watching someone trying to take their religion seriously is refreshing and hopeful for me.

How you, as a Christian, understand Islam or even whether the category of “religion” is helpful or correct — these are bigger questions for another day, another blog.

In these COVID days, when you’re looking for something short and easy to watch, something funny yet with substance, check out some episodes of Ramy.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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